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Q&A  •  12 September 2019


The Brilliance of Birds author Q&A

 Wondrous and wild, The Brilliance of Birds gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of some of New Zealand’s feathered friends. We the extraordinary minds behind this beautiful book Skye Wishart and Edin Whitehead all about this New Zealand Birdventure!

1. The Brilliance of Birds is filled with quirky facts and unique perspectives about New Zealand birds, what is your favourite bird fact from the book?

Skye: I love how the albatross has a tendon in its shoulder that locks its wings into the outstretched position when soaring. Genius - it would be awfully hard work to soar for hundreds of kilometres without it. I also love how the New Zealand rock wren makes a nest that can withstand alpine storms - it can be 33 degrees in there while outside it’s freezing! Such amazing insulating skills. This tiny bird, up in the alpine boulder fields, makes a spherical nest with thick grass walls and clads it with moss, with just one tiny entrance hole. Then it collects hundreds of feathers that it’s found around the place - from kea, kiwi, even possum fur and deer hair - to line the inside in luxury. Such a cushy start in life for a chick born into a harsh environment.

Edin: Skye has done such an amazing job of delving into the weird and wonderful lives of our birds. Something I didn’t know before we started working on the book is that tākapu – Australasian gannets – can change the shape of the lens in their eye when they dive so that they can see better underwater, which is such a cool adaptation!

2. Skye, you’ve got a journalism and biochemistry background, and an obvious love (and talent!) for writing, what prompted you to move from writing articles for magazines and blogs to writing a whole book?

Skye: Writing a book has always been the ultimate project to tick off for me, and when Jeremy Sherlock from Penguin Random House asked me to be involved in this project of course I said yes - especially to be able to write alongside Edin’s incredible photography. A book is obviously a chance to create something special that has longevity, but in this case a chance to entertain and hopefully foster a connection to our birds for the readers. This has huge value, both for the sake of conservation but also for making the natural world a little more weird and wonderful for the average person.

3. Edin, you went on a #Birdventure from the far north to the far south of NZ, capturing all the incredible photos that are in this book! Was there a particular highlight you could tell us about?

Edin: The opportunity to explore so much of Aotearoa was phenomenal – especially some of our many wonderful offshore islands! I’ve loved my time at sea as well, particularly in the southern ocean surrounded by albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels. Even though I’m an ocean person, I have to say my favourite birdventures have been up in the Southern Alps meeting our alpine birds. Rock-hopping through boulderfields looking for piwauwau (Rock wren), and chilling out with kea, getting hit by every type of weather imaginable! I’ve fallen even more in love with our many diverse ecosystems through the #birdventurenz, and being surrounded by the sheer scale of our alpine landscape was just breathtaking. 

4. How would you sum up The Brilliance of Birds in three words? 

Skye: Rich, animated, accessible.

Edin: Fresh. Wild. Cheeky. 

5. If you could be one of the birds featured in the book which would you be and why? 

Skye: That’s a hard one! I admire so many of the birds. What fun you could have being a New Zealand falcon, experiencing exhilarating flight speeds of more than 100km an hour, or a cheeky kea, with an entertaining life of play and raiding campsites and huts, or a tui sipping on nectar cocktails while singing heavenly melodies. But if I had to be one, I’d go for an unpopular choice: even though they’re by no means my favourite bird, I would be a southern black backed seagull. I’d be trading nobility and public affection for sheer gumption - these guys can survive almost anywhere in this challenging world humans have created (they have grown in numbers despite introduced predators and habitat destruction, and lack of protection under the Wildlife Act). Imagine lazily soaring on updraughts over gorgeous farmland, oceans or cities, possessing the unfussy ability to find food in almost any situation (scavenging fish, eggs, berries, delicious landfill…), and being armed with an ultra-competitive/aggressive spirit which makes them one of the topdogs in the bird world: sadly for our more precious, endemic and beautiful birds, you can’t deny that life is pretty good for those adaptable gulls.

Edin: I’m definitely a seabird! I don’t think my wingspan is big enough to be one of our great albatrosses, so I’d be a light-mantled albatross. They are my absolute favourite – and I would love to be able to skim the open ocean the way they do, riding the gale force winds of the roaring forties and furious fifties.

6. Quickfire: 

  • Beach or Bush?
    Both. Beach for salt, action and wide open space, bush for peace and tranquillity. My favourite places in New Zealand have both.
    Edin: I love the ocean, but being totally alone (apart from the birds!) in the bush is one of my favourite things.
  • Spring or Autumn?
    Spring - the birdsong leaps into life, everything starts growing, the days get longer.
    Edin: Spring – the fizz of life in spring brings me so much joy.
  • North Island or South Island?
    Born and raised for the most part a North Island girl, but South Island for adventures and wonder! The South Island has magnitude, remoteness, and a special feeling for me. I loved the two years I lived there.
    Edin: I’m being very unfaithful to my home island…but I love the South Island!

The Brilliance of Birds Skye Wishart, Edin Whitehead

New Zealand birds like you've never seen them before.

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